Colorado Preview: What We Talk About When We Talk about Jonathan Lewis

Revisiting a dream that never quite worked out.

Raymond Carver wrote about destroyed souls. His characters were beaten to disarray, stuck in unhappy places in their marriages, their careers, and usually themselves. Take Marge, the narrator of “The Bridle,” who spends her isolated days daydreaming of exotic places while managing an apartment building and working a side job as a not-so-busy hairstylist. One day she’s fixing the hair of a new tenant, Betty, who tells her about a long ago conversation with a high school guidance counselor:

“‘What dreams do you have?’ this woman asked me. ‘What goals have you set for yourself? What do you see yourself doing in ten years? Twenty years?’ … Now, if anybody asked me that question again, about my dreams and all, I’d tell them.”

“What would you tell them, honey?” I have her other hand now. But I’m not doing her nails. I’m just holding it, waiting to hear. …

She sighs and leans back. She lets me keep the hand. “I’d say, ‘Dreams, you know, are what you wake up from.’”

Raymond Carver, “The Bridle”

I think of that passage when I think about Jonathan Lewis’s struggles at NYCFC, his two years spent bridled on the bench, stuck like a Carver character in a world that was and wasn’t chosen for him.

It’s been more than two months now since the club traded Lewis to the Colorado Rapids, and so far it looks like a near-perfect deal for both teams. NYCFC received a boatload of Garber Bucks for a castaway, while the Rapids got another weapon for the Conor Casey quasi-revolution. And Lewis, who’s finally been given a chance to play, has produced enough to make you wonder.

With sports you always have to take a step back and look at things in retrospect. Since the trade, Lewis has scored three goals in just 354 minutes. He’s yet to play an entire match, but tonight he’ll likely set a new career high for starts and minutes played in a season. Fittingly, it’ll come against NYCFC.

Figuring out exactly where it went wrong with his old club remains complicated. Lewis passed the eye test whenever he took the field for NYCFC: his ability to run at defenders and create one-v-one chances was unlike any other winger in the squad. He was chaotic, which was entertaining against tired defenses. He made things happen. More than anything, he made you wonder how Rodney Wallace held down the left wing for nearly an entire season despite going goalless for 15 months.

Lewis’s youth and lack of playing time destined him to become a fan favorite in the Poku mold. His 0.77 expected goals and assists per 96 minutes last season were the highest tally in club history by a player not named David Villa, according to American Soccer Analysis, but those tantalizing 2018 numbers came on just 296 mostly substitute minutes; in his 234 minutes for NYCFC at the start of this season his xG+xA slid to a dismal 0.09.

The promising flashes weren’t enough to convince coaches and management. Patrick Vieira questioned his technical abilities, and just when it appeared that Lewis was about to break through Vieira jetted to Nice. Dome Torrent brought new opportunities, but despite pleasant early overtures, things quickly went sour. Lewis was banished to places beyond the bench, and had to broker his own USL loan to Louisville City FC to try and figure out how to defend the way Torrent wanted—and to show everyone else he really could play.

He showed enough to convince Gregg Berhalter, the new United States Men’s National Team coach, who’s given Lewis five caps already this year and a spot on the Gold Cup roster. But NYCFC’s response to the national team interest was muted. Claudio Reyna offered backhanded praise, commenting on Lewis’s maturity. Torrent infamously said he needed to do more than two great things a game, which sounded like a lot for a player getting limited minutes.

Like Marge and Betty, Lewis was stuck. And like in any Carver story, we never really got the full picture of why things didn’t work out. Even after Lewis escaped to Colorado, we were left to draw our own conclusions.

There may still be a happy ending to all this. Lewis’s open-play xG+xA per 96 has rebounded to a healthy 0.62 since the trade, placing him 14th in the league among players with at least as many minutes, just three slots below Carlos Vela. Now that the Gold Cup is over, he could see regular starts for the first time in his career. It’s an exciting time to be Jonathan Lewis.

As for NYCFC, they’ve moved on too. Dividing Lewis’s lack of minutes was easy enough. The new Scottish winger Gary Mackay-Steven was handed Lewis’s number 17 jersey, something that would’ve seemed unimaginable back when Lewis had Jack Harrison worrying about his starting spot. Mackay-Steven had a promising cameo at the end of the Red Bulls game last weekend, including a memorable stepover before slipping a tidy ball between Aaron Long and Michael Murillo to cue up a Héber shot.

With Ismael Tajouri-Shradi still out and Jesús Medina not showing much from the bench, Mackay-Steven could play a bigger role against Colorado tonight. The game will be a glimpse of things to come for NYCFC, but also of what might have been from a kid on the other team who’s just starting to wake up. ❧

Image: Bit and Bridle (Tibetan)